Discover more from on hand
José Moreno, co-founder, Birrialandia Taco Truck
Issue 45: On his start in food trucks, how working in restaurants prepared him to be a business owner, and more.
Why hello there! Welcome to on hand! If you’ve landed here and somehow aren’t subscribed, I got you:
José Moreno is one half of the founding team of New York’s most popular taco truck (source: me), bringing birria-style tacos to the masses in North Brooklyn and Queens. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, José and his brother Jesús started the Birrialandia Food Truck a few years ago and it has grown in popularity and is seemingly always packed. I sat down with José (and his brother occasionally popped in!) to talk about how he got his start in food trucks, how working in restaurants prepared him to be a business owner, and more.
Brianna Plaza: Do you want to tell me your background? Have you always been a chef?
Jose Moreno: I'm originally from Puebla, Mexico. I came to New York in 2000, I've been here for the last 22 years. When I got here, I started working in pizzerias as a washer and then, I spent 20 years working in kitchens. I never do something different than just work in all the restaurants.
Seven years ago I open a restaurant, Mexican food with a full menu in East Harlem, New York. And it was not working very well, I did the wrong things. Over there I start to sell some tacos, but the restaurant was really down.
I was working with Eataly and they sent me in 2013 to open Eataly Chicago, then I came back, I open Eataly downtown, they then send me back to open Eataly LA in 2017/2018. Birria was popular in San Diego. And I cross the border to Tijuana, Mexico, three or four times to visit friends, and I ask a lot of questions about how you do the meat, and things like that, and the right chili they use.
So I get back to New York with that idea, and then I have to find another job. I start working at another restaurant in Long Island, I have only Monday off. I use my Monday off to start investigating how the trucks work, where I can buy the truck, how to get the permits from the city. It was something new for me, but it's not easy though. Then I buy my food truck in 2019. And we decide to put it over there in Jackson Heights, Roosevelt Avenue, because it was a more popular avenue in that neighborhood.
And we started, we take long till they trust us. Especially because it was something new, was not here in New York before, they don't know what it is. Now you sell one taco birria, you have some idea because you saw something about it, hear something about it.
And when we began, we offer a free taco for our customer, we make one tray of taco, we stand out in front of the truck, and then say, "Come on, try a taco." And some people they do this, and little by little, it took some time. And then the pandemic come, and we've been closed for six weeks. We stayed home, and then when we saw it's starting to come back, I saw all the workers are back to the streets to sell food. The people they start working too, and all the restaurant close, not too many opportunity to buy food.
They tell us, "I miss the birria for six weeks." They knew we are back, they start coming back, and bring more people, more people. And then the line was busy all the time.
Brianna Plaza: This truck opened in 2021. Why did you choose Williamsburg for your second location?
Jose Moreno: Because I know the neighborhood over here, a lot of people are here, young people. This is not like a neighborhood that's a family neighborhood. They choose to order food. I almost think to open in Sheepshead Bay or Bensonhurts or Park Slope. I don't know, something came to my mind, Williamsburg will be great. I ask to friends, I want the next truck to be in Williamsburg, they tell me, "You will sell a lot over there."
So before I pick out this location, I come by myself in my car, I sit over here and watch the walking traffic. I think it was a great decision.
Brianna Plaza: How did working in restaurants prepare you for owning a truck?
Jose Moreno: Oh, almost everything. How to get food out fast, how to add the cilantro, how to cut the lemon to not be dark the next day, the knife has to be sharp. I mean, I use all my experience as a chef to run this company. And it's very important how to cook the birria as well, because I use three kinds of meats. You put the same meat in at the same time, some cook faster than the other one, you need to know that, you need to start with the hard meat, and then the soft meat. How to manage the employees too, I bring one of the chefs from Eataly. In Chicago, I was in charge of three restaurants, so I manage line cooks all the time, so I know how. How to speak to them, and to say this is how to be, not only sometimes, it's every day, these things.
Brianna Plaza: How come you decided to do a truck instead of trying a restaurant again?
Jose Moreno: First of all, because the experience I have with the restaurant. I open seven years in Harlem. We spend all the money in construction, make it look nice, and we don't have money to make the restaurant run. I was thinking when we open the next month I can pay the rent from the sales and could not.
You need more money. When I start this truck business, I start with $40,000 to $50,000, my small truck cost me $21,000. If I want to do the restaurant, it's nearly $200,000.
And it's less risk with this because if I spend this money on this truck, and then it's not working for a reason, I can move the truck to another part of the city, until I find the right site, or the right neighborhood. If you open a location, you sign the lease, you can not move it. That's the money you spend on the location, if the location is not working you lost everything, you don't get nothing back.
My idea was sell only tacos de birria for my food truck. My friend from Tijuana they tell me, you will sell birria, sell just birria, forget about al pastor, or carnitas or things like that. Working only with birria, it's enough.
Brianna Plaza: Would you open a different concept with other styles?
Jose Moreno: Something like that in mind, I think it's time to start. One or two more meats, things more on the menu like burritos, the right way. The thing is I can’t find brick and mortar right now, I've been looking but I haven't found the right one yet. I have to sign a lease to have the location, so I can design my kitchen how I want.
This food truck is so busy. I mean, I saw some food trucks, they have a big menu. I don't know how they do it. Or they don't sell everything in one day, but this is not right, the quality of the food. With birria, I have not enough room on this truck. I have six guys inside and I have one member delivering more stuff. Take out the dishes. And these trucks for expanding my menu in the trucks, it's not possible.
Brianna Plaza: Do you guys make your own tortillas or do you have a supplier?
Jose Moreno: No, no, we buy them. Because this kind of taco, the flavor is in the beef part. I was thinking if I make my own tortillas, the flavor is more richer, it's more good too, but then you don’t taste the beef part. And we spend right now, 150, 160 cases of tortillas in our two locations. There's no way for me to make the tortillas. We sell around 3,000 tacos, I believe.
I want to do my service fast, you order the tacos, you get your tacos fast. Making the tortillas by hand will take longer, and then the numbers will be less than the numbers right now. A lot of people don't want to wait.
That's why I think the food don't have to be so expensive now. And like you say, you want fancy, you need to go to get nice service at a restaurant. But it's not something you're going to do two times a week, because it's expensive.
Brianna Plaza: Why do you think New Yorkers like Birria so much?
The phenomenon was because of the really good consomme with the taco. Eat the taco and the consomme, and get the experience with the food when you suck all the juice from the cup of consomme. Nobody see that happen before in New York, it was something new, and people like new things. A lot of people come just for that experience, for the taco, I can see how they take the photo when they're walking. I say, wow, this is working. I say, "Dip your taco in the consomme you will see."
Sometimes we find the customers, they don't know that the consomme is like a soup, you can eat it with a spoon. They come, they eat the tacos, they dip and left the cup of consomme, because they think it is done. Then we tried speaking with them, that's why we give you a spoon there. And then after that they come for the consomme, they just want the soup.
Other things ~
There’s a possibility that you’ve heard me wax poetic about the fact that Sonoran-Style tortillas from Tucson are better than any other tortilla you’ll have. It’s a style of tortilla that’s made from flour, which is far less common in Mexican cooking but no less authentic, and this article looks at the long and windy history of the tortilla de harina.
As if you haven’t had enough of tacos, Eater looks at California’s tradition of pit-roasted meats that show up in tacos across the state.